The Best of Texas Road Trip: 10 Places That You Must Visit
Updated: Apr 16
Before moving to Texas, I had never lived in a state that liked to show off its shape everywhere. The shape of Texas is embedded on our bridges, jewelry, many tattoos, cutting boards, you name it. If you want more proof, check this out. It's rumored that the Texas flag can fly at the same height as the American flag, the only state in the union that can do that. It's not true, but don't tell a Texan that.
Texas is the second-largest state by area next to Alaska. Our topography includes beaches, piney woods, hills, mountains, and deserts. If you wanted to go from Point A to Point B of the furthest two points of Texas, it would take you nearly 14 hours and close to 900 miles.
There's so much variation in places that if you really want to see Texas, you would need to spend time in each region. And there are dozens of fun "best of" specialty trips that you can create: barbecue, wineries, bluebonnet trails, distilleries, shopping, and high school football games. Ah, where to start?
I started to list some of my favorite places and then realized that I have the opposite problem: I'm not sure where to end it. I needed to keep it simple. Down the line, I may start to do some specialty lists but first things first: my Top 10 places to go in Texas arranged in road trip order:
Palo Duro Canyon
McDonald Observatory and Marfa
Big Bend National Park and Terlingua
The Hill Country
The Space Center Houston
The State Fair of Texas
Palo Duro Canyon (Amarillo)
Palo Duro is the 2nd largest canyon in the United States. Reread that last sentence, please. Yet the majority of Texans that I've talked to have never been there and in many cases, have never even heard of it. Why isn't it a National Park? Well, it was originally purchased with the intent to become one, but that never happened. Before we bought our own camper, Bill and I rented one and stayed in the canyon. I've been a couple of times since and it never disappoints. The red and orange rock set among the greenery is breathtaking. The last time that I went was with a friend and our kids. Her then 8-year-old daughter looked down where we were standing and with a poise that never would have come to me, and told us to back up in a commanding tone that we didn't question. We looked at where we were previously standing and saw the baby rattlesnake hanging out under the small rock that we had been surrounding. Even now, that gives me the willies.
If you go to Palo Duro, you are right near Amarillo so I have a few other suggestions. Some are campy but you should know that I love that. Scroll on if you don't:
You've probably seen the pictures of the Cadillacs bumpers up in the Amarillo mud. Bring spray paint or pick up a can on the ground and leave your own message for everyone to see (that is, until it is painted over by someone else). Cadillac Ranch is in a livestock field - and I can attest that it's very muddy after the rain but still worth it.
The Big Texan
Do you remember the Old 96er in The Great Outdoors with John Candy? Well, at The Big Texan, it's a 72-ounce steak plus sides and you have an hour to eat it all front and center in the middle of the restaurant. While you wait for a seat, you can play arcade games or watch a concert or show while drinking their homemade brew out back. Need a place to stay? They have a motel. [Admitted tangent: We stayed there a few years ago when our kids were little. It took Bill forever to check in and I sat with the kids in the car about to lose it because the kids were upset and strapped into their car seats. When he finally got into the car, I asked him what the hell took so long. With a completely straight face, he said, "The guy in front of me was checking in his horse." Situation diffused - you can't make this stuff up.]
McDonald Observatory (Fort Stockton) and Marfa
Big Bend, the McDonald Observatory, and the surrounding area in West Texas are certified dark sky which means that star-gazing is out of this world (pun/dad joke intended). Each month, the Observatory hosts star parties that are open to the public and immensely popular. Plan ahead. Note: because of COVID precautions, they currently are not allowing the public to use their telescopes but binoculars are welcome.
Nearby Marfa is an art lover's desert oasis. Minimalist artist Donald Judd helped purchase a former Army base and installed his sculptures outside and inside of the old buildings. Several other artists are showcased here as well. Today, Marfa draws art lovers from around the world. You've probably seen the faux Prada store in the desert. Stay in a yurt, teepee, or Airstream at El Cosmica and venture out at night to see if you can catch the Marfa lights. While researching this article, I went to their visitor's page. I think the city's tagline sums it up well: "Tough to Get Here. Tougher to Explain. But Once You Get Here, You Get It."
Big Bend National Park and Terlingua
Big Bend is the least-visited National Park in the contiguous US because it is the farthest from any major city. But if you make the trek, you will be rewarded with places you can explore and cool flora and fauna (we saw several javelinas, coyotes, lizards, etc.) and you may have the place to yourself. If you don't stay in the park, prepare for at least a 45-minute drive to any park entrance.
In the early 1800s, Terlingua was a bustling mining town because of the plentiful cinnabar. The ghost town remains and has been re-inhabited. It has a legendary chili festival and Day of the Dead celebration every year, bringing thousands to its doorstep. The Starlight Theatre has great food and strong drinks. You don't want to miss this town if you head to Big Bend. Make sure you visit the cemetery and pay your respects.
San Antonio and Austin are tied for my favorite major cities in Texas. The former's history dates back to 1718 when Spanish explorers headed north from Mexico and established the Mission San Antonio de Valero. The city is vibrant and you can always count on a festival. They rely on tourists so you can feel confident that you will be shown a great time. It's assumed that you will go to the Alamo. Beyond that, my favorites are:
The San Antonio Riverwalk meanders around the San Antonio River and has restaurants, bars, hotels, and shopping along the way. At Christmastime, bald cypress trees are dripping with lights over the river
Historic Market Square
If you are looking for a souvenir and a good time, head to Market Square. You can have a margarita and some Tex-Mex under the colorful papel picado on a patio. If the gordita stand is set up, drink a margarita at one of the restaurants and devour a gordita or two instead. You can find pottery, textiles, and silver galore inside the buildings. There also are often musicians and ballet folklórica dancers to enjoy while you shop
The Mission Trail
When the Spanish arrived in the area, they established several missions, five of which stand today. There is a hiking and biking trail along the Mission Trail or you can drive from place to place. Each mission is about 2.5 miles apart from the other so make sure to take that into consideration.
Pearl Brewery complex
The old Pearl brewery has been transformed into retail, hotel, restaurant, and office space. On weekends, they host a lively Farmer's Market filled with artisans. Hotel Emma is housed in the old brewery and has an industrial meets romantic atmosphere.
McNay Art Museum
This former McNay estate-turned-museum packs an impressive punch for its small size. Its beautiful grounds usually host one or more photographers and their subjects. Gauguin, O'Keefe, and de Kooning all intermingle at this beautiful gem. If you have kids, nearby and not-to-be-missed are the DoSeum museum and Brackenridge Park
In general, the best time of year is to come in April for Fiesta. There are lots of parades and festivals and beautiful women in over-the-top fiesta gowns. My second favorite time of year is in February when the Rodeo comes to town. Each night after the rodeo, there is a concert with a major country, Tejano, or Top 40 artist. Tickets are very inexpensive and it's a fun night.
The Hill Country
San Antonio and Austin are part of the Hill Country, but the area deserves its own place on this list. There are so many cute old towns and places; I really don't think that you can go wrong anywhere. Here are some of my favorite places.
This former trading post was put up for sale in the 70s. It was purchased by a few characters and turned into quite the party. The town's slogan is "Everybody's Somebody in Luckenbach" and it sure does feel that way. If you aren't familiar with the song, you should be before you get there because you'll want to join in with the singing
This quaint German town is a favorite of Texans, so plan early if you want to visit and stay the weekend in Fredericksburg. There are lots of great places to shop, eat, and drink. Staying at a small house in town is the way to go, although I also love, love, love the Hangar Hotel with its 40s era bar and the chance to sit on the porch and watch folks fly in on their planes for the weekend
Gruene and New Braunfels
Both are old German towns [notice a theme? The Hill Country has a rich German history and still has its own Texas-German dialect]. Greune is now technically a district within New Braunfels. If you stop by Gruene Hall on Saturday night, you can get a cold beer and may end up two-stepping to Willie Nelson or Lyle Lovett. You just never know who is going to stop in and it's always worth a visit. You can also walk just down the road around the curve and hop into a tube. Summer tubing is a favorite pastime down here and the Guadalupe, Comal, and Frio are where it's at. Take your pick!
Austin has a well-known, well-loved reputation so I won't go too deep here except to say that it's hard to have a bad time in Austin. Whether it's strolling down 6th Street and the surrounding streets, heading to Scholz Garten, attending a UT game (hook 'em!), or swimming in Barton Springs, there is so much to do. The Oasis serves up legendary drinks and sunsets, and if it's too crowded, head to Mount Bonnell for your sunset.
If you decide not to swim at Barton Springs, take a walk around Zilker Park and consider renting a canoe to paddle around Town Lake (er, Lady Bird Lake) and look at the skyline. Sorry, still getting used to changes from my college days.
Stay in a big hotel downtown, stay in a cool motel on Congress or head for the hills and rent a house. Did I mention that it's hard to have a bad time in Austin? If you like music, shoot for South by Southwest (SXSW) held in March or the Austin City Limits (ACL) festival in October.
The Space Center Houston
Space Center Houston is NASA's home for its active astronauts, the ISS mission operations, and future space missions. In 1992, a visitor's center was built to inspire future astronauts. I have never been to the Space Center Houston, but I remember going to Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum several times as a kid and they ignited my interest in space. Now that I have kids, this is definitely at the top of my list of places to take my kids.
Port Aransas is half of an island just off of the coast of Corpus Christi. The other half of the island is Mustang Island, which is a propos as I understand that there are dozens of wild stallions that roam this part of the island. While it is a great getaway for Central and South Texas, most North Texans prefer the sugary sand and emerald waters of Destin and the small towns down Highway 30A in Florida. I do, however, love the charm of Port Aransas. It's just a good beach town. And Florida doesn't have anything on Texas gulf shrimp. They are huge and delicious and you can easily find a fisherman selling them on many a street corner out of their vehicle.
It is a paradise for outdoor activity. The beach and seashell combing are obvious activities but there's also an amazing coastal trail for kayaking and canoeing. Anglers can try their luck at sport fish like redfish and many families will take nets and wade out to catch crabs in shallower waters. It is a birder's paradise particularly when birds start to migrate there for the winter.
I've gone to Port A, as we like to call it, many times but this last time was very special. Our friends, Katherine and James, invited us to stay at their family beach house. In the evening, we would go to the top deck that towers over their house. From there, we could see the busy shipping channel. James pointed out that if you look closely, you could see dolphins swimming and jumping in front of the boats. And to my further delight, the next day he drove us down to the fishing pier where we saw dozens of medium-size sea turtles eating leftovers from the fishermen.
Would I fly there from New York or Chicago? No. But if you're near the region, it's worth a stop.
The Piney Woods is actually a region; it's the northeast section of the state where we meet up with Louisiana. Huge cypress trees dripping with Spanish moss line one of the only natural lake in Texas (Caddo). There is abundant wildlife including alligators but fishing is plentiful and canoeing and kayaking are rewarding in this area at the Caddo Lake State Park.
The State Fair of Texas (Dallas)
We live just down the street from the State Fair Grounds in Dallas. I have the pleasure of seeing the Texas Star Ferris Wheel as I get on the highway and I love it. The State Fair - and The Texas Star - are the largest of their kind in the United States. It is a fried food lover's delight. Each year, vendors vie for the "Most Creative" or "Best Taste". We've had fried Thanksgiving meal, fried cheesecake, fried beer, and fried bacon to name a few. My personal favorites are the chocolate-covered strawberries deep-fried in funnel cake and topped with powdered sugar and separately, a deep-fried Cuban roll. There are also games and rides galore, concerts with major headliners, the livestock shows and lots of shows for adults and kids. Pig and ostrich races make for an unusual, but fun competition.
It's also the site of the Texas-OU Red River Shootout and the Grambling State-Prairie View A&M games (hot tip: do not attempt to go before or after these games but you are good to go while the game is on). Have you ever seen a life-size butter carving? It's something you didn't know that you needed to see. And whatever you do, don't forget to grab a Fletcher's Corn Dog and take a picture with it in front of Big Tex!
If you've never been to Dallas, read my article on a First Timer's Guide to Dallas.
I am sure that this will be a hot topic. So I want to know what I missed, got wrong, or what YOU think is the best of Texas. Please respond if you agree, what you'd change or what your Texas Bucket list looks like!